Comparison of online help formats

Document status: archived

Many online help formats exist. This article compares the basic differences between four popular online help formats. To see the differences, download the samples.

Feature comparison

The table compares four types of online help: WinHelp version 4, Microsoft compiled HTML help, WebHelp and pure HTML.

Features of popular online help systems
Feature WinHelp 4 MS HTML help (CHM) WebHelp pure HTML
What it is The original Windows help system, and still sometimes used. Not supported in Windows Vista. Runs on Windows. Proprietary cross-platform help from Adobe (www.adobe.com). Essentially, it is HTML with JavaScript that lets the help run on Windows, UNIX, and other operating systems. HTML that conforms to the W3C specification. It typically includes CSS for styling and formatting.
Expandable and collapsible table of contents Yes Yes Yes Yes, but only practical if there are not many topics.
Multi-level index Yes Yes Yes Yes
Full text search Yes Yes Yes No
Web browser independent n/a No Yes Yes
Tri-pane window Yes (partial).
It is separate from the help, and is not as convenient as a proper tri-pane.
Yes Yes No.
It is possible to use frames for the Contents and Index, but a full text search (Find) is not possible using only HTML.
Popups Yes Yes (partial).
Links between popups are not possible.
Yes (partial).
Links between popups are not possible.
Yes
context-sensitive help Yes Yes Yes Yes
End-user system requirements Windows 95 to Windows XP Windows 95 and above Web browser Web browser

Help samples

You can download each help sample individually, or your can download them all in AllFormats.zip.

Notes about the online help samples
  WinHelp 4 MS HTML (CHM) WebHelp Pure HTML All formats
Zipped file name WinHelp4.zip MSHtmlHelp.zip & extra files WebHelp.zip pureHTML.zip AllFormats.zip
File size (zipped) 108 KB 112 KB 512 KB 53 KB 781 KB
Open this file to start samplehelp.hlp. Not supported in Windows Vista. samplehelp.chm. Windows 95 and 98 require IE 4 or above and you possibly must install additional files. samplehelp.htm (not sample_help.htm in the samplehelp directory!). Enable JavaScript in your web browser. samplehelp.htm See applicable format

See also

Linking web pages to help topics (this is a technical article)

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